What we perceive as the normal in our lives can be shattered by momentary call to a higher plane of understanding.
Remember this in the days following Memorial Day, considering the sacrifices of persons we might have once have considered “ordinary” in the usual daily hum-drum of our lives.
I will paraphrase Charles Dickens today in writing a small version of “A Tale of Two Cities”—or call it a tale of two trips with multiple cross-trips within them.
The first trip to the first city, Leavenworth, was short compared to the second one—a three-week trip to Philadelphia, with stops along the way for the murals in Chillicothe, Mo., the Lincoln Museum and Tomb in Springfield, Ill., the Serpent Mound in Ohio, the Civil War Gettysburg Battlefield and Museum in Pennsylvania, and finally the great number of Revolutionary War and Civil War memories and relics in Philadelphia and my son’s home.
I was in Leavenworth to participate in the Kansas Sampler Festival, but my great singular event occurred in a Dairy Queen. I walked in the door, and this very foxy, grinning, cute little African-American girl, probably about 4, was holding her mother’s hand, and looking directly at me. She pointed at me and called out, “Papa!”
“No, that isn’t your Papa,” said her mother.
The little girl was dancing around with a mischievous smile, and finally burst out, pointing at me again, “Papa!”
I leaned over to her, and asked, “Do you think I’m your grandpa?”
She smiled and nodded. Apparently she noticed I was in the right age group, but hadn’t discovered the genetic rules that an old white guy wasn’t likely to be her grandfather.
I said, “Well, at this moment I wish I were your grandpa.”
Her mother smiled at me, and said, “Papa’s coming, he’ll be here.”
I thought perhaps he would be white—a mixed-race marriage involved. But when he arrived he was black. He had a balding head and white beard, just like me. Apparently the little girl was looking at features, not skin color.
Out of the mouth of a babe had come a proclamation that we are all basically just human, quite seemingly ordinary to each other with our share of desires and pains.
At Springfield, I learned Abraham Lincoln had said that those persons who considered slavery such a great way of life should be allowed to participate as a slave in the “peculiar institution,” that they might have its full benefit at least for a time.
At some point, Lincoln seems to have learned my little girl’s lesson, to—that we basically are all just human, nothing extraordinary to the daily notice of others, all of us walking around with our daily concerns.
I became impressed with how ordinary person can be who are called to higher planes. We can sometimes forget that Lincoln could hurt, that he had ordinary pains and concerns, yet rose above all of this by profession and conscience.
For instance, Lincoln dearly wanted his sons to experience joyful childhoods, and not be locked into labor as he was.
When he was elected president, a neighbor wished to him that he could become a great president, perhaps second only to Washington. I greatly admire George Washington’s hand in the origins of this nation, and his wisdom at being willing to step aside for the a successor.
But in my heart I believe that through all of the challenges of the Civil War, Lincoln exceeded his neighbor’s expectations to become our greatest president.
What became especially poignant throughout the trip were all of these reminders that Lincoln and other great leaders, including the ones we don’t know as household names, were ordinary persons who could hurt and bleed. They had the ordinary trappings of human existence and habit that show they were much like us.
There was Lincoln’s top hat, with his finger prints on top of the brim and his thumb print under the brim, the tops of the cloth gone, literally worn away by his constant tipping of the hat to people he met. There was his blood still on the silk gloves he had tucked inside his coat pocket the night of his murder.
We saw a lock of George Washington’s hair. We read, in his own handwriting, Washington’s observations about growing corn, carrots and potatoes. And we saw the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting.
We saw the stretcher Stonewall Jackson’s men used to carry him from the battlefield. I sat in the church pews where Washington and Benjamin Franklin sat. We saw Sherman’s campaign hat with its wear and bullet holes. We saw the cast of a minnie ball, and the leg bone of the “ordinary” soldier from whom it was taken.
These were all ordinary people who rose to extraordinary levels when called to do so.
My conclusion is that you, too, are ordinary, that you can hurt and have concerns. I suspect you should not only be expected to do ordinary responsibilities, but also to look within youself to rise to your potenital.
When you meet me in Marion County, never again tell me things such as you don’t vote, or that there is nothing you can do about the situation anyway—or any one of a million other things that can excuse you from knowing yourself, your responsibilities and what you can do.
These people who rise to the extraordinary, from a little African-American girl to Lincoln, have helped me know better than that.